Should Museums Decline Donations From Big Pharma?

If yes, where should the line be drawn? Who decides?

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In museum philanthropy, what kind of pill can't be swallowed?

In December, The New York Times published an article raising the question of whether or not museums should be more thorough in vetting donors.

The article, “Gifts Tied to Opioid Sales Invite a Question: Should Museums Vet Donors?,” examined donations made by the Dr. Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation. For nearly half a century, the foundation has given millions of dollars to museums on both sides of the Atlantic, from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to the American Museum of Natural History and the Guggenheim in NYC.

The Times article noted that several members of the Sackler family benefit financially from Purdue Pharma, which manufactures OxyContin — the prescription drug that sits at the top of the list when it comes to deaths by opioid overdose.

In 2007, the parent company of Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to a federal felony charge of misbranding OxyContin, with the intention to defraud or mislead. The guilty plea included more than $600 million in fines. “Now Purdue faces new lawsuits by state authorities as well as another federal investigation,” the December article said. Few cultural institutions, it noted, “seem concerned that the money they have received may be tied, in some way, to a family fortune partly built on the sale of opioids.”

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Which raises an important question: Should arts institutions refuse to accept philanthropy from controversial sources of giving?

No, they should not.

As the Times article rightly points out, no member of the Sackler family itself was accused of wrongdoing in the Purdue Pharma lawsuit. More to the point, if museums begin to turn away philanthropy in circumstances such as these, where should the line be drawn? Who decides?

Many of the world’s top museum donors can arguably be seen as controversial in some way or another. Jeffrey Gundlach, for example, donated $42.5 million to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY, according to artnet.com, which compiled a 2016 list of major donors to museums.

Gundlach, an investment firm manager, was accused by Trust Company of the West (TCW), an asset management firm he once led, of stealing confidential data, lying to potential clients and keeping drugs and pornographic materials in his office.

The ensuing lawsuit was famously ugly. Eventually, a jury decided that Gundlach and his colleagues had indeed breached their fiduciary duty and misappropriated trade secrets. In response to a countersuit launched by Gundlach against TCW, claiming that his former employer owed him and his associates hundreds of millions of dollars, that same jury awarded him $66.7 million in damages. TCW, which initiated the original lawsuit, was not awarded any money. A settlement agreement remains confidential. Should a museum accept money from Gundlach?

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David Geffen, the media mogul, also in 2016 gave $100 million to the Museum of Modern Art. The year before, he gave another $100 million to Lincoln Center, turning Avery Fisher Hall into David Geffen Hall. In a story reported on Buzzfeed in 2014, it has been alleged that Geffen was a guest at parties thrown by Marc Collins-Rector, the businessman and convicted sex offender. Collins-Rector allegedly assaulted multiple teenage boys at those parties, according to lawsuits examined by BuzzFeed. Should an arts organization accept money from Geffen?

David Geffen Hall faces the David H. Koch Theater across the Lincoln Center plaza. Like Geffen, Koch donated $100 million and his name is on the former New York State Theater building. Koch, of course, is the scion of Koch Industries; by most estimates he is ranked as the richest individual in NYC. Along with his brother Charles, the Kochs have spent millions in campaign contributions and lobbying expenses to influence elections that benefit their business. David Koch was the specific target of a campaign, covered in the Times in January 2016, to remove him from the board of the Museum of Natural History, owing to his anti-science political beliefs. Should the museum return Koch’s money?

Should an arts group decline donations by people based on accusations that don’t pan out or to implied or even direct associations with controversial characters? Unless the wealth of the philanthropist was obtained by illegal means, no. There is a long tradition of separating the politics and personal life of donors from the act of giving itself. It’s a tradition important to continue.